Wood skyscrapers begin to gain traction in the U.S. - and the Northwest

2014-03-21 Ashley Bach

What a big week for the future of tall wood buildings. It was three years ago that the U.S. government announced it would promote wood as a green building material, and it has spent more than $2 million on emerging wood technologies through the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Forest Products Laboratory.

Using wood for construction is one thing, but using wood for tall buildings, even skyscrapers? It's an method that's been used in Europe since the 1990s, and in the last year or two, the idea has started to take hold in the United States. The USDA just announced this week that it will spend $1 million to train architects, engineers and developers in the benefits of large wood buildings, and another $1 million on a design competition to "demonstrate the architectural and commercial viability" of using wood for high-rise construction.

Wood may be one of the world's oldest building materials, but it is now also one of the most advanced, said (Secretary of Agriculture Tom) Vilsack. Building stronger markets for innovative new wood products supports sustainable forestry, helps buffer reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and puts rural America at the forefront of an emerging industry. Presently, the market for wood and other related forest products supports more than one million direct jobs, many in rural America. As these markets expand, so will the economic opportunities.

The Northwest may end up becoming an epicenter of the new trend. Seattle architectural expert Joseph Mayo spoke recently at the Washington Forest Protection Association's annual meeting about how Washington, with its world-leading positions in timber, manufacturing and technology, can be a new center for the use of wood in the construction of large buildings. Mayo has also talked to the city of Seattle about changing building codes to make the construction of large buildings easier.

One of the things holding back large wood building construction industry in the U.S. is a lack of supply of cross-laminated timber, the ultra-strong, fire-resistant wood used in large construction.

Here's how Gizmodo put it this week:

The problem the White House wants to solve is where they'll get (the cross-laminated timber) from. The London tower's timber was sourced from a company in Austria called KLH, which pioneered the manufacturing of the stuff. But the US government would like that wood to come from the US, not Europe—hence its partnership with WoodWorks, a nonprofit that aims to connect architects with stateside suppliers.

That problem may be solved. The day after the USDA made its announcement, Idaho Forest Group, based in Coeur d’Alene, said it was partnering with Johann Offner Group (the Austrian company that owns KLH, which invented cross-laminated timber) to sell the timber in the U.S. As the market for large wood construction grows in the U.S. it's also likely that Idaho Forest Group will have competitors.

Marc Brinkmeyer, chairman of Idaho Forest Group, told the Spokane Spokesman-Review that "the time is right" for cross-laminated timber to hit the U.S. market. “Many leading European architects and builders are using this technology to make significant and appealing structures."

Idaho Forest Group initially will import CLT with an eye toward manufacturing it within 24 to 36 months, he said. It’s too early to say where domestic production will occur, he added.

The Oregonian this week noted that the city of Portland already approved cross-laminated timber to be used in a small building at the Oregon Zoo, and Popular Science published a large story on cross-laminated timber in its latest issue, with this headline: "The World's Most Advanced Building Material Is...Wood/And it’s going to remake the skyline."